Vahid Brown at the CTC Sentinel has a new article ( pdf document) out arguing that the relationship between Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden before 9/11 was considerably more fractious than it was made out to be.  The main source of argument was between the Taliban’s Afghan nationalist agenda and bin Laden’s view of global jihad, and in particular his determination to attack the United States, he says.

Based on an account by an insider, he challenges the assumption that bin Laden personally swore an oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. The account by Egyptian jihadist Mustafa Hamid, better known as Abul-Walid al-Masri, was first published in jihadist forums in 2007 but gained little attention outside specialist websites.

Given the groundswell of talk this week about the possibility of an eventual peace deal with the Taliban it is worth reading closely in the light of the debate about whether they can be prised away from al Qaeda (bin Laden’s son says in this interview with Reuters that there is little love lost between the Taliban and OBL).

Brown notes that Abul-Walid is a Taliban loyalist and his claims should be treated with caution. However the apparent endorsement of his views by the Taliban would suggest that whether or not his account of a Taliban/al Qaeda rift is accurate, they cast light on how the Taliban chooses to project itself today.

“He (Abul Walid) writes that relations between the Taliban and the Arab jihadists in Afghanistan had become more contentious during that year (1998), primarily on account of the escalation of al-Qaeda’s media and operational campaign against the United States. From the outset, the Taliban’s provision of hospitality for the al-Qaeda leadership was limited by two conditions:  bin Laden was not to communicate with the media without the consent of the Taliban regime, nor was he to directly antagonize the United States,” says Brown.

“A number of the Arab jihadist leaders rose in opposition to bin Laden at this time,” he quotes Abul-Walid as saying, “all of them affirming the primacy of the domestic fronts against the Arab regimes, convinced that a shift to a ‘global confrontation’ against the United States was ill conceived.”

With the relationship between Mullah Omar and bin Laden “worsening by the day”, the al Qaeda leader was supposed to take an oath of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader to end the rift. Bin Laden however at first procrastinated, and then sent Abul-Walid to make a vow of allegiance on his behalf – an ambiguous act of proxy that would later allow him to either deny or aver having made the oath depending on which suited him best.

Of the preparation for 9/11, Abul Walid writes, “Mullah Omar topped the list of those kept in the dark, though it was on his head that all of the catastrophic consequences of that strike would fall, as his regime collapsed along with the Twin Towers of New York. ” The oath of allegiance “turned out to have been an outright deception of the Commander of the Faithful (Mullah Omar), diverting his attention from a dangerous act, plotted behind his back, that undermined his fundamental prerogatives as ruler of the country and threatened the lives and fates of all Afghans.”

Brown concludes that the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban may be similar even today, with the former using the latter out of expedience while pursuing policies counter to its own interests.

“In many ways, the Afghan Taliban remain as dependent on support from Pakistan as they were prior to 9/11. Yet it is against this very patron, and under a Taliban banner, that al-Qaeda and its coalition of Pakistani jihadists are waging a bloody campaign of suicide terrorism. Mullah Omar has flatly condemned this campaign, telling his purported “followers” in Pakistan’s tribal areas that they are “bringing a bad name” to the Taliban and “harming the war against the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

“The ‘Commander of the Faithful,’ however, has proven unable to command these particular faithful, and the violence in Pakistan’s cities rages on. This says less about the limits of Mullah Omar’s authority than it does about the expedient nature of the allegiances that al-Qaeda and its partners profess. To achieve its objectives in the region, the policy community must strive for a more nuanced understanding of these allegiances, the purposes they serve, and the underlying tensions they conceal.”

The arguments about whether the Taliban can be prised away from al Qaeda have raged pretty much since 9/11 — from those who say that the United States should have tried to do so more effectively before it launched its war in Afghanistan, to those who argue that the war itself has driven the two closer together.

Until quite recently, the debate has remained largely within the domain of specialists. The new focus, however, on an eventual exit strategy for Afghanistan – in which a display of strength on the part of U.S.-led forces is supposed to help pave the way for a longer term peace deal – makes these details about the Taliban very relevant today.

Do also read Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books on a possible deal with the Taliban.

In his view, recent public statements by Mullah Omar have signalled a greater willingness to negotiate:

“The Taliban’s new tone can be traced to secret talks in the spring of 2009. Sponsored by Saudi Arabia at (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai’s request, the talks included former (or now retired) Taliban, former Arab members of al-Qaeda, and Karzai’s representatives. No breakthrough took place, but the talks led to a series of visits to Saudi Arabia by important Taliban leaders during the rest of 2009. The US, British, and Saudi officials who were indirectly in contact with the Taliban there quickly encouraged them to renounce al-Qaeda and lay out their negotiating demands. In turn, the Taliban said that distancing themselves from al-Qaeda would require the other side to meet a principal demand of their own: that all foreign forces must announce a timetable to leave Afghanistan.”

Pakistan, he says, is pushing for a major – indeed exclusive role – for its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in brokering any talks.

“How will the Taliban leaders respond? Many of them are fed up with years of ISI manipulation and strategizing on their behalf and would prefer to keep the ISI out of such talks. Some members of the Taliban have built up a rapport with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, the domestic intelligence agency of the Kabul government. The NDS and the ISI loathe and mistrust each other, and the NDS would be extremely reluctant to allow the ISI a central part in negotiations. Moreover the crucial acceptance of reconciliation with the Taliban has to come from the non-Pashtun population in the north who are extremely hostile to the Taliban and the ISI. If the northern ethnic groups who make up just over 50 percent of the population do not accept the reconciliation plan, there could be a renewed civil war as in the 1990s.

“But the ISI has power and influence over the Taliban. Not only are the Taliban able to resupply their fighters from Pakistan, and seek medical treatment and other facilities, but the families of most Taliban leaders live in Pakistan where they own homes and run businesses and shops. Taliban leaders travel to Saudi Arabia on Pakistani passports. All this makes them vulnerable to ISI pressure. Even before the US military can consider coopting mid-level Taliban commanders, both sides would have to ascertain how this would play with the ISI.”

It is impossible to believe that the United States and its allies would be willing to hand over exclusive control of any talks with the Taliban to the ISI. From Pakistan’s point of view, it would be unlikely to want to deliver on any peace deal unless it is convinced its own interests are taken care of  – including reassurances both about India’s growing presence in Afghanistan, and the security of its own border with Afghanistan – never recognised by Kabul even under the former Taliban regime. India, with memories of Afghanistan being used as a base for Kashmiri militant groups before 9/11, would look warily at any deal with the Taliban which appeared to reassert Pakistan’s influence there.

So there is a long way to go yet. But you might just about be able to argue that after nearly a decade of war (or far longer in the case of Afghanistan), an end may be in sight.

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